School leadership: Cultivating collective efficacy

What will it take to strengthen the pipeline of educators to take on the complex role of school leadership and cultivate collective efficacy to improve outcomes for all students? That’s the challenge at the heart of the Menzies School Leadership Incubator.

The looming retirement of a large percentage of current principals, coupled with falling application rates for principalship positions has left the school leadership pipeline in Australia in crisis (Constantinou, n.d.; King, 2022).

The Incubator is led by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) in partnership with the Menzies Foundation and experts from the education, corporate and philanthropic sectors, including school leaders. Insights from its work over the last 3 years suggests a new approach to leadership is needed.

A recent report – School leadership that cultivates collective efficacy: Emerging insights 2022 (Elliott et al., 2022) – shares 5 leadership domains identified through the work of the Incubator as underpinning the leadership of collective efficacy: Understanding Collective Efficacy; Systems Leadership; Change Leadership; Team Leadership; and Collaborative Capacity.

‘The increasingly complex and challenging contexts within which schools operate can be more effectively navigated when leaders are focused on deepening collaborative capacity such that schools more efficiently and effectively harness multiple expertise, aligned, and focused on improving student learning outcomes,’ the authors write.

‘The education system currently focuses on the development of leaders, however, to build collective efficacy we need to focus on both leader and leadership development, a combination of leadership of self, leadership of others and leadership of systems.’

Over the last 3 years, the Incubator has employed a sandpit approach (design, test, learn and adapt) in order to explore and understand more about the leadership conditions and capabilities needed for collective efficacy to thrive. The primary sandpit has been the Menzies School Leader Fellowship – a 2-year initiative that gives practicing school leaders a chance to trial strategies and interventions focused on enhancing collective efficacy within their own contexts.

Figure 1: Leadership of collective efficacy inquiry model (Elliott et al., 2022).

Traditional definitions of collective efficacy focus on shared beliefs, collaboration, or generic school conditions. The Incubator suggests one way of thinking about collective efficacy in a school environment is ‘staff working together in schools believe in, enact and grow their collective capability to positively impact outcomes for all students’.

‘When schools involved in the Incubator have successfully developed strong collective efficacy, staff have been motivated to work collaboratively and evaluate the impact of their practice on student outcomes,’ the report notes, but adds ‘… building and growing collective efficacy is neither simple nor easy.’

In the Incubator, collective efficacy is seen as a strategic pillar for schools to work collaboratively and improve student outcomes. The report says we need to frame our thinking around mindset, skillset, toolset. ‘Just as there is strength in a triangle, if the development of collective efficacy involves each aspect – mindset, skillset, toolkit –the result is a strong foundation.’

Figure 2. A framing for collective efficacy as a strategic pillar for school improvement (Elliott et al., 2022)

The Incubator has identified aspects of collective efficacy – collective skill, collective will, intellectual humility and curiosity – that can be observed and developed.

As part of its work to support schools, the Incubator has developed a Collective Efficacy Tracking Tool which draws on national and international research findings and the experiences of leaders involved in the Fellowship.

‘The Tracking Tool consists of 3 inter-related domains in which collective efficacy can be enacted (the school, the leader, the teacher) and 4 phases of maturity at which collective efficacy may develop and be tracked in the school (awareness, emerging, establishing and sustaining),’ the report explains. Leaders can use the indicators in each domain and phase to diagnose where collective efficacy is already evident in their own school and identify any areas for further development.

The indicators are grouped into 5 core elements:

  1. Trust: People feel safe to express ideas, ask questions, and challenge one another.
  2. Shared sense of purpose: People believe they can make more progress together than on their own.
  3. Structures and support: There is an infrastructure that supports authentic opportunities to learn with and from one another.
  4. Evidence-informed priorities: Priorities for improving student outcomes are based on school-based evidence and on research.
  5. Quality teaching and learning: Effective practices are continually developed and shared (Elliott et al., 2022).

The Incubator is also collaborating with a technology company to create an online platform called Rising Team for Schools, which the report says ‘aims to empower leaders and teams to track collective efficacy and build engaged, connected and successful teams’. The platform has several learning kits that focus on a particular skill or aspect of collective efficacy. School teams work through the kits together in interactive sessions, completing one every 6 weeks or so.

A beta version of Rising Teams for Schools has already been tested and a full pilot is planned for this year. Expressions of interest to join the pilot will be sought in early 2023. For more information, contact Kerry Elliott ( or Hilary Hollingsworth (


Constantinou, M. (n.d). The harsh realities of working as a school principal in modern day Australia. Impact. Retrieved December 20, 2022 from

Elliott, K., Hollingsworth, H., Thornton, A., Gillies, L., & Henderson, K. (2022). School leadership that cultivates collective efficacy: Emerging insights 2022. Australian Council for Educational Research.

King, T. (2022, August 17). Not just a teacher shortage. Australian Principals Federation Blog.

As a school leader, how are you growing collaboration in your own team? Do staff believe they can make more progress together than on their own? Would you say you’re able to make the most of the expertise you have available?